Behind The Lens

By Johnathan McGinty

It’s a Friday afternoon, and Paul Lester is getting ready for a “rock and roll cruise.”

As such, he’s spending the weekend getting his bags ready and tackling a few errands, but for a man who by his own admission doesn’t typically take a vacation, he’s looking forward to this getaway at sea. What’s a “rock and roll cruise,” you ask? Oh, it’s just a quick trip with some friends of his in the music industry, including his good buddy Robby Krieger, the legendary guitarist from The Doors.

Safe to say, it’s not a typical cruise. But if you spend a few hours with Lester, you’ll quickly learn not much has been typical about his interesting and, at times, crazy life.

Known as one of golf’s greatest photographers, Lester’s career has taken him across the globe, capturing some of the most famous shots in the game’s history while also forging deep, lasting relationships with its biggest legends.

During the heyday of golf’s celebrity tournament era, it was Lester who made sure he got the best shots of the brightest stars from the screen to the green.

When golf celebrated its 100th anniversary, once again it was Lester who was tasked with chronicling every facet of the historic gathering.

And earlier this year, when Tiger Woods needed someone to shoot the Genesis Open for his foundation, he trusted no one but Lester and his team.

These opportunities are a testament to not only his remarkable skills behind the camera, but also his ability to build lasting trust with his subjects. And he’s done it all while splitting time between his boyhood home of Los Angeles and his current residence in Evans.

At the urging of friends and family, Lester has compiled some of his most memorable photographs in a new book, Beyond The Fairway: Timeless Images From Legendary Golf Photographer Paul Lester. It’s part biographical journey and part tribute to the famous photo subjects who have helped define his career.

“I’ve been able to have relationships with all of these players, so first of all they trust me,” he said. “That trust is the biggest part of all of it. These guys would open up to me.”

And it was an embodiment of that trust that helped spur the idea for a book along.

Eddie Merrins, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Tiger Woods (15 years old), Byron Nelson and Dave Stockton

Contracted to shoot the events around the Centennial of Golf in 1988, he found himself witness to a rare meeting between two of the biggest stars in the sport’s history – Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus.

“They had a pro-am one day, and one of the first guys going off in the morning was Jack, and Ben was walking the other way because he had just finished a press conference, and they both saw each other and stopped to talk,” Lester recalled. “They were both in awe of each other because they were the best golfers of their eras. I waited for them to talk for a minute, and they both looked at me and wanted me to take that shot of them.”

Like everyone else, Lester was shooting on film back then, and that one-of-a-kind photo of these two giants of golf remained tucked away in his personal archives for more than 20 years. While tidying up his files, he came across it and thought that Nicklaus, who is a close friend of his, would appreciate a copy, so he put a couple of 8×10 versions of the photograph in the mail.

Nicklaus and his wife, Barbara, loved it.

“They were both like ‘wow, this is just the greatest thing Paul,’” he says. “They had never seen that photo before, and now it’s hanging on a wall at his house. Jack loves it and I love it, and I thought if Jack and Barbara had never seen that picture before, no one has. It just dawned on me that I have plenty of photos like that that no one has ever seen, so I thought ‘OK, maybe it is time to do that book.’”

That meant culling through boxes of old film and cataloging not just the photographs he wanted to include, but the meaning behind them. That job fell to  Augusta-writer and family friend Abbigail Remkus, who spent hours with Lester as he went through the images and shared the stories behind each one. From candid shots of Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead and Tom Watson posing on the course to John Daly playing guitar with country music superstar Jake Owens, Lester’s photos offer a rare, intimate look into the lives of the game’s greatest legends.

The book – and his career – could have taken a different path, as Lester had initially been interested in a career in entertainment. His father, Buddy Lester, was a well-known comedian who appeared in several movies and TV shows, including the original Ocean’s Eleven. His father helped arrange an entry-level job at Universal Studios, but rather than getting him exposed to the inner workings of movie production, the younger Lester spent his days outside operating a jackhammer on what amounted to a construction job.

After just a few short days of hard labor, it became apparent that Lester’s destiny was behind the lens of a camera, and his father’s next job connection would pay off. The elder Lester would often play in celebrity golf tournaments like the old Bob Hope Classic, and he began encouraging his son to tag along.

“My dad would say ‘Why don’t you bring your camera out with you, and we’ll see what happens,’” Lester said with a laugh. “I did that, and I got to know the right people, and before I knew it, I had some of the biggest accounts out there! I realized I better learn how to do all this quick!”

It was romance that ultimately brought Lester to Augusta for good. He had regularly visited Augusta for that famous first week in April to shoot the Masters Tournament, and it was surrounded by the white and pink blooms of azaleas that he would meet his wife, Barbara, a longtime resident of the area.

Even at 70, Lester keeps a busy schedule, employing a team of photographers and traveling the world to work for his clients. He’ll enjoy his upcoming vacation and spend time with some good friends and good music before gearing up for this year’s golf season, all while appreciating what the game has gifted him.

“I love golf. It’s been my life,” Lester says. “Without it, I wouldn’t have anything.”

Photos courtesy of Paul Lester

Appears in the April 2020 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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